Tuesday, December 28, 2010

MADD endorses deferred adjudication for first-offense DWI

I'm incredibly pleased to see Mothers Against Drunk Driving backing off some of its more draconian policies in recent months. First they declared they wouldn't oppose abolition of Texas' Orwellian-named "Driver Responsibility" surcharge, and now Paul Kennedy points to an Austin Statesman article in which MADD endorsed allowing deferred adjudication for drunk driving offenses, in part to boost conviction rates and to avoid having DWI cases plead down to non-alcohol-related offenses. MADD's position is especially surprising since they were the primary champion of eliminating deferred for DWIs in the first place.

Smith's bill strikes me as a much better solution to the problem than Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo's DWI-Lite suggestion. Here's a notable excerpt from the Statesman story in which even Williamson County DA John Bradley endorsed reinstating deferred adjudication for first-time DWIs, which was eliminated as a sentencing option by the Lege some years ago in a fit of overzealous pique:
Supporters say the plan could ease court backlogs by routing cases out of courtrooms, give prosecutors a new negotiating tool and remove the threat of jail that makes some first-timers refuse guilty pleas in DWI cases.

By the time a House legislative committee held a hearing on the issue in August, more than 122,000 misdemeanor DWI cases were pending in state district courts. Prosecutors argue they are too limited in the options they can offer first-time offenders.

"Our alternatives that we can offer have diminished such that our bargaining positions have weakened, and cases are backing up," testified Richard Alpert, a 24-year Tarrant County prosecutor who has become a key figure in the fight against drunken driving.

The practice of convicting first-time offenders on reduced charges is more prevalent in counties near San Antonio and Houston, where backlogs have become a significant concern, witnesses reported during the hearing. If the drunken driver repeats the offense, critics worry there is then no record of a first conviction, and no grounds to enhance punishment for repeat offenses.

"The other thing this will do is hopefully make sure that we have a record of that drunken driving incident," said Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who expressed support for the measure. ...

In counties where the practice of reducing charges is not as prevalent, such as Travis and Williamson, the move could still ease backlog concerns, several prosecutors said.

"This would be a first step to putting some sanity in that system as long as people make sure to retain it only for the true first-time offender," Bradley said.
Paul Kennedy notes that "My quibble with Rep. Smith's proposal is barring nondisclosure in DWI cases since law enforcement and state licensing agencies have access to the arrest records of defendants whose cases were disposed of through deferred adjudication." He's right, of course, and in an ideal world I wish Rep. Smith would tweak his bill as Paul suggests. But Smith's compromise is one I'm willing to make in exchange for the benefits of avoiding the Driver Responsibility surcharge, which is the biggest reason for the decline in DWI pleas, and to ease the overwhelming burden on county courts imposed by the massive case backlog.

The bill would also have the benefit of clarifying the legality of the DIVERT program created by Harris County DA Pat Lykos, which has generated controversy in some quarters because of its essential similarity to deferred adjudication. One of Harris County's 15 judges hearing misdemeanor DWI cases, Bill Harmon, has refused to participate in the program, and this legislation would presumably eliminate his opposition.

Kudos to Rep. Todd Smith and his staff for tackling this hot-button, third-rail issue in a moderate, sensible way. With even MADD endorsing the bill, there is plenty of political cover and only knee-jerk reasons left for opposing the legislation. And during a session when counties seem certain to face additional unfunded mandates on the criminal justice front, it'd be nice to pass at least a few pieces of legislation that reduce the cost burden on county justice systems. See HB 189 bill details.

RELATED: MADD sounding quite reasonable on mandatory license suspensions.


Texas Maverick said...

The Senate Committee this summer heard testimony from Madd wanting mandatory IGNITION INTERLOCK DEVICE (S0147. There was opposition and thus a compromise in this bill.So, maybe this is a good meeting of the minds. They also wanted sobriety checkpoints but that went nowhere in the discussion. There is no easy solution because the alcohol lobby is one of the largest in the country and local govt gets too much revenue for alcohol sales. Most people don't think they are drunk and friends don't want to get in the middle if indeed there is a friend present. Punishment is not the answer but the longer way of education and treatment isn't acceptable to those who want an instant fix - just pass a law. I don't agree with the interlock simply because it doesn't address the problem, but I guess it's better than another senator's bill, 1st conviction, lose your license for life. Now that's a real brilliant idea.

Anonymous said...

The interlock industry has tried to get legislation passed requiring the device in lower level DWI's for several sessions. I see it is rearing it's head once again. Leaving that requirement in the bill screams of special interest. I hope it gets taken out before it goes very far.

Lone Star Ma said...

Personally, I'm all for the devices. Driving is a privilege - not a right. People who drive while intoxicated should have to find other means of transportation, like the bus, if they don't want to use devices that prove that they are not drinking. There are too many innocent lives at stake.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your recognizing the benefits of this bill as opposed to blindly opposing it as some defense attorney bloggers have done.